How to Deal With PoliceVon at Obsidian Wings on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates controversy:

It would be nice — real nice — if our discussion of this incident embraced more than just race and included police tactics generally. Crowley had the power to toss Gates in jail because he didn’t like what Gates said. That just isn’t right.

Not “just isn’t right,” but fundamentally flawed: The power imbalance between citizens and the police allows the insecurities of the latter to violate the First Amendment rights of the former. Fortunately, police organizations and training are aware of this problem and make it an essential part of police training. But not consistently:

Michael J. Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association in New York, took a harder line and said officers should not tolerate disrespect on the street.

“We pay these officers to risk their lives every day,” Mr. Palladino said. “We’re taught that officers should have a thicker skin and be a little immune to some comments. But not to the point where you are abused in public. You don’t get paid to be publicly abused. There are laws that protect against that.”

In Atlanta, Officer M. Tate, who would not give his first name, said he was trained not to lose his cool — or his job — by reacting to name calling. He recalled from memory the exact definition of when a person’s behavior crossed the line into being worthy of arrest: “The set of circumstances that will lead a reasonable and prudent person to believe that a crime has or is about to be committed and that the person in question is involved in a significant manner.” Anything short of that, he said, does not warrant handcuffs.

“I’ll take them yelling at me,” Officer Tate said. “Unless I’m hit or they get violent, I won’t arrest them for just yelling at me.”

Officers have to make judgment calls, of course; they have to avoid “escalation,” where concerns about a gathering crowd have merit. I have attended protests where I felt the police were indeed protecting my right to assemble against the mob of war-mongers yelling at us. (Which is why the catcalls by a fellow “anarchist” against the cops rankled me at the time.)

But citizens don’t have the power of the state backing them up, they don’t have the “authority” nor the “credibility” (especially when race and class mix in) to stand up for themselves against a hot-headed cop. It’s you against 50 bullets.

Joan Walsh pleads with us to consider the “tension between working-class cops and academics, whether students or professors, in campus towns” — an appeal to “uppity Negro syndrome” that I doubt Walsh (usually level-headed) intends. But Gates’ academic credentials are no match against handcuffs, a night stick and a gun. Counter Walsh, I plead with you to consider the arrogance of our police forces, its place in a continuum of right wing authoritarianism that reflexively subverts the Bill of Rights in response to any perceived threat.

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